Now and Later
Stephanie Nakasian bridges the best from the past with the jazz that will define the future.
Thursday, January 3, 2008
American culture’s notoriously short-term memory quickly forgets creative landmarks while transforming fads and celebrity into fodder for nostalgia. So it’s always refreshing to come across an artist like Stephanie Nakasian, a jazz singer steeped in history who draws sustenance from the infinitely rich, intertwined currents just a few decades upstream from our present moment.
With her crystalline tone and keen rhythmic sensibility, Nakasian is a musician alive to all the possibilities afforded a contemporary jazz artist, which means that she’s taken pains to study the breadth of the tradition and its many tributaries. She’s honed a highly personal sound informed by the singers who came before, including many rarely mentioned today.
“Some of the best advice I got when I was starting out was don’t listen to derivatives, listen to the originals,” says Nakasian, who performs at Wave Street Studios on Saturday with a quartet led by ace pianist Hod O’Brien. “I found myself being drawn backwards. I loved Ella Fitzgerald and she said her favorite singer was Connie Boswell, so I checked her out. There’s a real lineage.
“Then I found myself teaching a lot,” she continues. “I invented a course on jazz singers, and found how some vocalists like Billie Holiday were hanging out with theater people, like Mabel Mercer.”
Nakasian’s expansive reach is evident on her latest album, Thrush Hour: A Study of the Great Ladies of Jazz (V.S.O.P.). She devotes a track each to 20 singers, ranging from ‘20s stars Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith (who, strictly speaking, fall outside of jazz) to later legends Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and overlooked greats such as Betty Roche and Helen Humes. Most impressive is her ability to evoke so many personalities while maintaining her own core identity.
“I never want to sound like a copy,” says Nakasian from her home near Greenwood, Va. “If someone said I sound like Ella, I’d listen to Betty Carter. You don’t have to scat like Ella, there’s Sarah Vaughan and Roche. I used to think you had to sing behind the beat, but Maxine Sullivan didn’t. I wanted to open up as many possible ways to go as I could, then find my own way.”
Nakasian credits her potent partnership with O’Brien for schooling her in jazz’s fundamentals. A supremely swinging pianist who came up at the height of the modern jazz era, he made his recording debut on the 1957 Prestige album Three Trumpets featuring Art Farmer, Donald Byrd and Idrees Sulieman. While off the scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he’s gained widespread recognition in recent years with a series of great albums for Fresh Sound and Reservoir.
Nakasian met O’Brian in the early 1980s when she was working on Wall Street (she has an MA in international finance from Northwestern). He encouraged her to pursue her interest in jazz, and before long she gave up her day job. A quick study, she won an audition with vocalese master Jon Hendricks.
“It was an amazing experience, but it wasn’t fun at the beginning,” Nakasian recalls. “We had a gig in three days, and I had to learn these really hard vocalese songs. It was scary.”
For the performance at Wave Studios, which will be recorded for a live album, Nakasian and O’Brien will be joined by bassist Dan Robbins, veteran drummer Vince Lateano, and their 13-year-old daughter, Veronica Swift, a budding singer who recently headlined at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. Steeped in jazz’s history, Nakasian seems to be taking care of the music’s future, too.
STEPHANIE NAKASIAN AND THE HOD O’BRIEN QUARTET perform 7pm Saturday, Jan. 5, at Wave Street Studios, 774 Wave St., Monterey. $40. 655-2010 or wavestreet.biz/.